Smell My Characters!

Raise your hand if you’re a writer who wants to smell like your characters! Or a reader who enjoys imagining what characters smell like.

This might not always be a good idea. I’m not sure I would want to smell like an orc or something with tentacles. I’m sure Frank Hope, the protagonist from my Love Songs for Lost Worlds trilogy sometimes smelled like BO and/or vomit. I kind of put Frank through the wringer. Poor guy. He was, however, the villain of the first book, so he kind of deserved some payback.

In the novel I’m currently writing, Carillon’s Curse, my Victorian gentlemen (who happens to be a medium), Thomas, washes with lavender soap and wears violet water. I know what lavender smells like. My husband and I have used Jason’s Lavender Body Wash for years. (We had a cat who really loved it. He would be all over us whenever we were freshly showered.) But I had no idea what violet water smelled like. I have never even smelled a violet, let alone violet water.

The first time I ever heard of violet water was in Paul’s Case by Willa Cather. When I was researching Victorian colognes, I ran across an article that said respectable Victorian gentlemen could wear violet water. Since another popular scent, ambergris, is basically whale diarrhea, I decided Thomas would wear violet water.

I wanted, nay—needed—to smell it, so I found a shop on Etsy that creates and sells all natural cosmetics based on historical compounds, LBCC Historical Apothecary. You can find them at http://www.littlebits.etsy.com. I highly recommend trying their products. I bought some violet water, hair pomade, and lip balm and love all of it.

Violet water has a light floral scent, but I found it surprisingly gender neutral. I bought it simply to smell Thomas, but I’m going to wear it myself. It’s perfect for transitioning and suitable for a man.

Hadrian, my co-protagonist, smells primarily of leather and horse sweat. I had horses in my youth, and miss them, so I don’t need to buy anything to see what he smells like. All I have to do is remember. (Horses, in case you don’t know, smell wonderful!)

So, those are the sexy scents of my sexy men. What about you, writers? What scents define your characters?

Don’t forget to look for Carillon’s Curse, coming to Amazon in December 2021!

I think these are violets. I’m not certain, honestly. My search for ‘violets’ came up with a lot of things I *know* aren’t violets. I did the best I could with my limited horticultural knowledge.

Imagining Characters Through Time

So many sad, disturbing things are happening in the real world right now, so, of course, I have to go inside my imaginary writer’s world and make things weird there, too. I’m writing a paranormal romance novel set in 1888 in the Old West of the U.S. Today, because I’m living through such “interesting” times, I started thinking about what things would happen in the lives of my main characters.

In 1888, they’re in their early twenties. They’re Civil War babies. In some ways, they have just escaped it, but its effects and racism still loom over them in 1888. Thomas will be forty-nine when the Great War breaks out. U.S. servicemen in World War I ranged in age from eighteen to sixty. I don’t think Thomas would have been eligible to serve, since he is disabled, but Hadrian is fit and a police officer. I’m sure he would have been conscripted. He probably would even volunteer. What sort of adventures would he have? Would he make it home to Thomas?

And what would Thomas do while his lover is abroad, fighting on foreign soil? I’m sure he would do most of his typical Thomasy things. Talking to restless spirits. Going around town in his invalid carriage with his cat. Cars would be in fashion, so he would probably have a car by then. Would he drive it himself? The idea of my rather uptight Thomas driving a car makes me smile.

Thomas would be fifty-three in 1918, when the Spanish Flu pandemic hits. If Hadrian survived the Great War, what sort of condition would he be in? Would he survive the pandemic? What about sweet Thomas? He’s already in poor health. With his asthma, I’m not even sure how he made it to twenty-three. What would the pandemic be like for him? Would he make it? Would he hole up in his mansion with Hadrian? There was no Amazon, then. How would they get things they needed?

What will they think of World War II? They’ll be in their seventies then. It must seem terrible to see such a thing having lived through World War I. How cataclysmic it must seem. How frightening. They would have survived so much, but time keeps whirling by, a plow through hard earth throwing up weeds and dirt.

They’ll be long dead before they’re ever able to legally marry in the U.S. Would they even be buried together?

It’s not like I’m even planning a series or anything with these two. It’s simply that some weird part of me worries about them and almost needs to write more stories about them just to make sure they’re okay.

This is the kind of thing I don’t think many readers understand about writers. Our characters are real people to us. They live and breathe. We have coffee and tea with them. We worry about them going out into the wide world like a mother kissing her kindergartener goodbye on the first day of school.

We give them to you as an act of love, because they have been our friends on whatever journey we have taken, and we hope they will be yours.

Writing While Evil

Sometimes writers feel like gods. At the moment, I feel like a fiend. My favorite character this time is Thomas, a shy gentleman who happens to see ghosts. He’s also a virgin when the story begins.

Plots are like roller coasters. With each scene I’ve been writing, I’m ramping up to a pivotal scene (the Midpoint) that will plunge my characters into a huge, stomach-flipping dip. It’s going to devastate Thomas. In the mean time, I’m watching him grow more in love, watching him venture farther out of his comfort zone and into a bigger, wider world than he has dared to imagine.

And I’m there, barely discernible in the shadows, whispering lines into his ear, telling him things that aren’t quite true. He’s such a gentle, good character. He has no idea I’m fattening him up for the kill.

It’s not, of course, an actual death—and I’ve already hurt him quite a bit—but this scene is going to wound him deeply. I’m not looking forward to it. I’m actually writing this blog to avoid it just a little longer. Unlike some writers, I don’t relish hurting characters—especially characters I love. And I love Thomas to bits. I hope readers love him at least half as much as I do.

I guess it’s time to slink away and break poor Thomas’s sweet heart. What’s worse, perhaps, is I give him the terrible advice afterward. Like some cruel, sabotaging friend, I’ll turn him in the wrong direction and give him a push. I feel sickened just thinking about it.

But I’m doing it because it wouldn’t be much of a story if everything was perfect. ( I suppose there are stories like that, but I don’t care for them.) If you, like me, enjoy riding an emotional roller coaster, check out some of my gay romances! None of my HEAs come easily.

When a Story’s Theme is a Revelation

Metaphor for a sweet protagonist? (He does remind me a little of Thomas.)

When I write, I’ve noticed I’m often sifting through my baggage. Writing is fun, it’s my vocation, and it’s also therapy. I usually don’t realize how a work symbolizes some part of my life, either something I’m working on or something I need to work on, until I’m already into it. This time, I’m about midway through my current story, Carillon’s Curse, and starting to tease out its theme. (I start out with some vague idea of a novel’s theme, then zero in on it as I write.)

I’m still piecing it together, but a component of it slapped me right upside the head.

I’ve always been a people pleaser. I gush over strangers, have few boundaries, and put the wants of others ahead of my own. I shrink in unfamiliar—and sometimes in familiar environments—trying to take up as little room as possible. A friend once said, “Do you realize how many times you say you’re sorry? Why are you so sorry?”

Basically, I’m sorry I’m alive. I’m sorry for the space I take up on this planet. I think this stems from growing up with a physically and emotionally abusive parent. I always thought if I was good—if I could be oh, so very, very good—I wouldn’t be hurt. I guess I also internalized her anger and resentment toward me.

Three months ago I started transitioning from female to male. After saying I was genderqueer for a long time, I finally realized that I had been saying that because I didn’t think transitioning was a real option. The pandemic hit, and my shell cracked wide open. To my surprise, my husband was fully supportive. We’re closer now than ever before. (And we were pretty obnoxiously close before.)

I don’t know if it’s the testosterone, the pandemic, or my age, but I free and alive and valid. I’m not putting up with crap anymore. I’m not going back to that person who has to smile even when I’m feeling shitty. I don’t need to go out of my way to make everyone comfortable. I’m not sorry for being here. For the first time, when I celebrated Pride Month, I felt truly proud. I actually, maybe for the first time ever, really like myself.

Okay, so what does this have to do with a gay Western paranormal romance? Both of the main characters, in different ways and for different reasons, feel flawed and unworthy of love. These two good men, tied to their pasts and unable to attain true happiness, are chasing a serial killer who thinks he’s freaking awesome. This guy believes he’s helping his victims and society. He’s a narcissistic creep who, in his arrogance, is sure he has all of the answers.

My job, as the writer of this story, is to send these two good guys down the paths they need to stop this killer and find the love of their lives. Sometimes writers feel like gods. So often, as with this book, I feel more like a shepherd, guiding my heroes to a happily ever after.

Who knew shepherds sometimes learned from their lambs?

Know Your Characters

blue_eyeToday, I saw a post in a writing group in which someone was stuck on whether his MC (main character) would move onto a new relationship following the disappearance and possible death of her lover. Obviously, one should consider the depth of the relationship in question, but why not look to the character to solve this problem? If you have a well-developed character who seems like a real person to you, problems like this aren’t problems at all.

For instance, take veterinarian Dr. Garland Sands from my latest M/M historical romance, A Little Sin. After his lover commits suicide, he is able to move on and find love again. However, if his lover had vanished, I don’t believe he would ever stop looking for him. He’s an idealist and an optimist. He’s a hopeful character. Not only would he be unable to give up hope of finding his lover again, he would probably go to the ends of the Earth searching for him.

A very different character in my epic fantasy novel, Under the Shadow, Mylinka, is separated from her childhood love. Although he has only disappeared, evidence suggests he was killed in a purging of mages. Mylinka is a pessimist. She’s a war orphan with some nightmarish experiences. It’s easy for her to believe the worst. She’s also a highly adaptable pragmatist, so she moves on to other relationships.

So you can see how two very different characters will react to the same circumstances in extremely different ways. If you’re stuck on whether or not a character would do something, just ask the character. If your character won’t talk, maybe you need to develop him more.

How? Fill out some character worksheets. There are tons out there! My favorite character questionnaire is in Will Dunne’s The Dramatic Writer’s Companion. It asks questions like ‘what is your character’s greatest achievement so far? What is his greatest failure?’ Rather than spending a lot of time on your character’s hairstyle, it delves deep into the character’s interior life. It’s my favorite writing book despite the fact that I don’t write screenplays. Another fun way to learn more about your characters is to take online personality tests as if you were them.

Once you’re really in touch with your characters, you won’t need to ask how they’ll act. You’ll just know. And if you’re still not sure, just ask them. I often have trouble getting mine to shut up. I’m trying to write a paranormal romance, and Garland from A Little Sin and Ward from Zen Alpha keep bugging me. They want me to write more about them. That’s the only drawback to creating characters that become real people—they don’t always do what you want.

A Drop of Blood to Bring Characters to Life

actorProbably my favorite part of writing is developing characters. It’s like meeting new friends. There’s an indescribable, magical element to it that is thrilling and unique. I enjoy writing about characters that are very different from me. I like the challenge and, well, it’s exciting! But when you’re working in deep POV (also called third person close or third person limited), it can be tough getting inside the head of a character who’s so different. Here’s how I do it:

I start by leaving myself a backdoor. Computer programmers will sometimes leave a “backdoor” in their code, a way to sneak in if they need to. I do this with my characters. I build a character with various physical and emotional attributes, a unique personality (Myers-Briggs can be helpful with this!), and a suitable back story. I try to make these true to the character and let him develop in a way that is different from me.

But then, I add a backdoor, sometimes two or three, but at least one. I add something that the character and I have in common. So, Bradley from my m/m contemporary romance, Zen Alpha, is a tall, beautiful, twenty-five year old redheaded openly gay man who lives in a suburb of Dallas, is a tech support specialist, has expensive tastes that are beyond his means, and is intent on having an alpha male boyfriend. Bradley Evans and I have nothing in common. Like, squat.

So, I gave him a narcissistic mother. Being the child of a narcissistic parent changes a person in fundamental ways. I know, because my own mother is a narcissist. I used this fact to shape and highlight certain aspects of his personality. It even explains why he is so fascinated with his emotionally abusive boyfriend, Jackson, and why he holds himself at a distance from his sexy neighbor, kind, authentic Ward.

His mother was my backdoor into his character. In essence, I gave him a piece of myself. It’s sort of like molding a clay golem, then bringing it to life with a drop of your blood. Sometimes giving a character a piece of yourself hurts, because you have to confront something of yourself in the manuscript. Sometimes that’s difficult.

However, once you crawl inside your character, you’re in! The rest kind of falls into place. You end up with an interesting, round character that is fun to write about. So, bring your character to life and enjoy slipping into deep POV.

If you’re interested in reading Zen Alpha, you can read it for free with Kindle Unlimited, or buy it on Amazon. If you would like to review it, contact me at: everwintergreen@gmail.com for a reviewer copy.

Happy writing!

Why Are Writers So Sensitive?

Being able to accept criticism as a writer is vital if you want to have a writing career. People love being critics. They love having opinions, often regarding things they know nothing about, and they especially love knocking other people down. A writer who wants to be published has to be resilient. But why are writers so sensitive?

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In my case, it’s because of what writing entails. Isn’t writing a book just like crocheting an afghan or baking a pie? You just make something—right? No, not at all. Writing is opening up a door in your soul and carving people out of whatever you find there. So, when someone criticizes your work, they aren’t saying they disliked some nouns and verbs strung together in Arial or New Times Roman—they are saying they looked into your soul and found it lacking.

Recovering from a blow like that is hard. I think if/when this happens, your book simply hasn’t found the right audience. It’s like falling in love. Sometimes the people you get involved with are complete idiots who don’t appreciate you. If you’re lucky, you find someone who does.

Another reason I’m sensitive about my works is that the characters are real people to me. It’s like if someone put your best friend in a beauty pageant and judged how she walks and looks in a bathing suit. Friends have positive attributes that go far beyond bathing suits. I take long walks with my characters, having meaningful conversations with them. Often, I lean on them when I need support.

Although I write faster these days, produce a different genre of books, and have learned to pay more attention to things like story arcs and plot outlines, I spent years writing my epic fantasy books. I don’t regret the time I spent with them. I was learning how to write. More importantly, I needed that world and those characters at that particular time in my life. Lycian helped me cope with the deaths of my cousins who were like my brother and sister, the death of my grandmother who was primarily responsible for raising me, a miscarriage, and the deaths of two familiars. He was a kind, quiet companion. Aside from my husband, he was my best friend during that period. I needed him, and I’m glad I had him.

Currently, I’m working on a new m/m romance (it’s a mystery romance!) and am absolutely in love with the main characters. Even as I lose myself in the bliss of writing, I’m preparing for how my characters will be judged, how my world will be reduced to so many stars, and how some people will simply not understand it. That’s okay. I love the characters; I like the work (so far), and I know there will be some people out there who will enjoy it. I’m writing it for myself and those people.

 

The Fur Coats

Authors often talk about what music they listen to while writing, but what do their characters listen to? In my new gay romance, Zen Alpha, the two main characters get their blood pumping with the pop punk sound of Austin’s The Fur Coats. Ward listens to them every morning before work, where he teaches autistic children. On this particular day, he and Bradley listen to them after a long night looking for a lost cat.

Check out The Fur Coats here and wake up!

There’s Only One Way…

No. There isn’t. There are as many ways of doing something as there are people on the planet. I hate writing instructors (or reviewers) who act as if there is only one way of writing or one kind of book. (I know, I know. You’re not supposed to get upset with reviewers. They are entitled to their opinions, and I believe that wholeheartedly. That doesn’t mean I can’t feel butt hurt when one doesn’t understand the difference between a character-driven story and a plot-driven story.)

But back to writing tips. Years ago, I was in a writing group where one writer berated another for saying she couldn’t control her characters. I knew exactly what the ‘I can’t control them’ writer meant. To some extent, that’s how I write. My characters come to me in an organic fashion. Writing often feels more like an archeological dig than a creative process. I feel like I’m discovering the characters, discovering the story. There’s something profoundly Jungian about it.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to step in more. I’ll have a flash of inspiration for a plot point or an attitude shift and insert them and watch the story reorder itself. Or I’ll give the protagonist a nudge in the ribs. I can’t even fathom the sort of rational mind who views the characters as chess pieces and feels in control of everything. I’m not arrogant enough to think that person is wrong. I realize they are different. It’s okay for people to be different. Why do so many of us have a problem with that?

I was thinking about Kite from Lover, Destroyer today. I pick on him a lot, but I feel deeply sorry for him. As soon as I thought that, I wondered what the Vulcan from that writing group would have said. “You created his backstory! You created him–how can you feel sorry for him? That’s insane?”

Well, yeah. But I didn’t intentionally create him. He came to me that way. Damaged, possessing a frightening power, manipulated into doing something that preys on his conscience for the rest of his life. Technically, I created him. But I swear, he was broken when I found him.

There are many ways to do the same thing. Mine just happens to be a bit insane. And I’m perfectly fine with that.